Gold Panning Rules, Regulations, and FAQ’s

I lived in Auburn, California for six months, and I met a man who had enough “spare gold” to fill up an entire room in his house. This is the dream of every gold-seeking hobbyist, but first you must know the gold panning rules and regulations in the US.

Generally, you may pan for gold on any unclaimed BLM land. If you find a good spot, you can work with the BLM office to stake a claim to avoid competitor panners. Many areas have limits on how much gold you can take home per day.

Gold panning rules vary from state-to-state, so make sure to double-check your state’s gold panning laws before starting. We’ve pulled our information from the three most popular states for gold panning: California, Alaska, and Arizona.


How Does Gold Panning Work?

Gold panning, a type of gold prospecting, is the process of catching and extracting gold pieces from dirt and gravel by using a pan and water. Gold is much heavier than other rocks, so shaking the pan around in the water causes the gold to sink to the bottom and the rocks to fall out.

It’s a popular way to find gold because it’s simple and cheap. It can also be quite fruitful if you find a good placer deposit: a spot in a river where minerals settle (usually because the river runs slower and also dips into a valley). Still, crouching over water for hours on end can be very uncomfortable.

Can Gold Panning Be Profitable?

Yes, but don’t quit your day job.

Gold panning doesn’t require much investment besides time and gas (if you live far from gold country), but it still makes a better hobby than career.

Many recreational gold panners say that, after the initial learning curve, they find gold every time they go out. Still, this gold is more likely flour-sized flakes than rock-sized nuggets.

The best places to find gold exist where turbulence changes to slower-moving water flow. Check out slower water below rapids and waterfalls, deep pools, and the downstream side of boulders.

Gold Panning in Alaska

Is Gold Panning the Best Way to Find Gold?

Other ways to find gold include dredging, mining, and metal detecting. Each way requires different equipment and different locations.

Panning and suction-dredging are both done in water. Dredging essentially does the same thing as panning, but with a mechanized river vacuum cleaner that sifts the gold out for you. It’s less hands-on, but the equipment can be expensive, as well as heavy to drag around a river.

Mining and metal detecting happen on land, and also require equipment. The only scenario where mining might be a good investment is if you happen upon a fruitful gold supply stuck to the side of a big rock. Mining has significantly more laws than any other strategy, so more research is necessary. Metal detecting is a less expensive option if you want to look on land but have no clue where the gold is.

In summary, gold panning is the best way to find gold if you live near a river with a good placer deposit, have little money to invest, and prefer to travel light. If not, other ways might suit you better.

Do I Need a Permit?

For hand panning, you don’t need a permit. On the other hand, you would likely need a permit to do mechanized (bulldozers, etc.) prospecting.

Where can I pan for gold?

You can pan for gold on any unclaimed BLM (bureau of land management) land, or on private property with permission from the landowner. If you find gold in a particularly good spot, you can work with that area’s BLM office to stake a claim.

A successfully staked claim authorizes you to be the only person to prospect that area. You will need to mark your area, as well as pay an annual fee, even for public lands.

Thus, one of the most important gold panning rules is that you must also make sure not to poke around other peoples’ claims. You can use this website to see which land is claimed already.

How often can I pan for gold?

You may pan as often as you want, but not necessarily as much as you want.

Some places have limits – such as, along the Yuba River in California, you can only gather 15 pounds of gold per day. Still, if that ever becomes a problem for you, that’s a great problem to have. Another regulation is that your panning efforts cannot bee commercialized.

Does Gold Panning Damage the Environment?

Gold panning on a large scale can negatively affect the environment by clouding stream water with silt. Cloudy water is unsuitable for wildlife because it has lower oxygen levels.

To reduce silt, dig only in active stream gravels, and return large rocks to their original spots.

Where Do I Buy Gold Panning Equipment?

If you live in gold country, there will most definitely be ma and pa gold panning shops that you can check out. If not, buying gold panning equipment can be as easy as shipping from Amazon.

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What is Black Sand?

While gold panning, you’re likely to come across black sand. It’s a mix of Hematite and Magnetite, and falls into placer deposits just like gold does. Therefore, it is often a good indicator of gold.

It’s also heavier than most gravel and dirt, so it’s likely to be mixed in with the gold flakes in your pan. It can be easily removed with a magnet.

How Do I Identify Gold in My Pan?

Experienced panners have an “eye” for gold. The best way to develop this is by looking at gold found from panning – either at a friend’s house, museum, or BLM office.

Some distinct features of gold to look out for:

  • Gold does not break when struck, it flattens.
  • Gold is golden in color, not brassy.
  • Gold does not glitter in the sun.


Gold panning is a great way to find gold as a beginner. Although it’s not the best career, you can make a pretty penny as an experienced hobbyist.

Gold panning rules and regulations mostly involve where you can pan – so make sure you do enough research to find a good spot of unclaimed BLM land amongst a river or stream placer deposit.

Are you a gold panner? Comment your thoughts below!

The Out sider

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